A Three-Part Model for Understanding Stories

OK, so now we’ve acknowledged that despite it being a buzzword, there is some value in exploring this thing we call ‘storytelling’. I’ve developed a model for understanding different elements of narrative that can be useful.

Here, I’ll explain the three layers that make up this model, and talk a little bit about how they might be seen to manifest themselves online.

The Story World encapsulates the ‘things’ alive in your stories. The people, the places etc. and the events.

The bottom layer is the Story World. This is made up of all the things we can point at, within the universe of a narrative — the people, the places, the organisations, the props. It’s the world one can imagine walking through when reading a book, hearing an audio play or even reading, listening to, or watching, the news. Crucially, it’s the stuff which is kept alive in the mind, when thinking about a story, regardless of the way in which the narrative unfolds.

It’s not just the people and so on, though. The Story World, in this model, includes the things that happen to them — the narrative events, the plot — the state of the characters, locations and so on. Not just the current state, either — but the state at any point in the narrative.

The BBC Mythology Engine (2010), allows us to explore the Story World of Doctor Who (and Eastenders) by making the characters, places and events addressable — and exposing the in-universe connections between them.

Perhaps more importantly, the Story World includes the connections between the people, places, events and so on. Obviously these change over time, but these are the real meat of the story, in most cases — which characters have relationships; which characters experience the same events; how events are caused by other events. As I used to say, somewhat glibly, when these characters were relevant to Eastenders:

“No-one cares about Pat Butcher. They care if she has a fight with Peggy Mitchell.”

The Story World is the sum total of concepts, and connections, that are revealed by a narrative.

Using the analogy of the flashlight from last time, the Story World layer is the equivalent of having that blinding light on, right at the beginning. It shows the complete set of concepts, and connections, that, by the end of a narrative, have been revealed to the audience.

This, in itself, is interesting. It’s what we discuss once we’ve finished consuming a story — how it all fits together. There’s a craft here, and a pleasure to be gained, from appreciating the web of narrative that has been constructed. But at the same time, if that web was revealed all in one go, a different kind of poetics would be lost — the storytelling.

The Story Telling is the revelation, in a particular order, of the connected information from the Story World.

As mentioned last time, ‘storytelling’, in my definition, is the revelation of connected information over time. Here, it is the specific selection of which concepts and connections to reveal, and in which order.

This is the crucial work of the author and/or director, encompassing cuts and fades in audio-visual media. The order in which you reveal things fundamentally changes how people experience a story — thus for anybody involved in creating narratives, this design is extremely important, and depends on the message that is intended to be conveyed.

In the online world (though not exclusively a preserve of this medium), the rigidity of the order of narrative is much more flexible. Especially if you consider the various events in a plot to have their own, independently reachable addresses, the control of the author is shattered.

All is not lost, however. We can, and often do, merely transfer existing forms of narrative — text, video, audio, online, thus keeping control of the storytelling. But even in a more hyperlinked form of narrative, we can still make choices over what to link to, at any one time. This is what the team I worked with on Storybox, attempted to do.

In Storybox (2011), the reader can see multiple perspectives on the same moment in time — but only some of these perspectives allow the reader to move on to the next event in the pre-ordained sequence.

The Web was designed to be a universal space, with the intention that it could be accessed by anyone, from anywhere, with no prerequisites (other than having an internet connection). No prior knowledge, no specific devices or operating systems, and no accessibility requirements — stateless, as they say. But, at least at first glance, this throws a hand grenade into the world of narrative.

Frequently, this is expressed as a fear of lack of control. ‘The Death of the Author’ and all that. Ultimately, though, I believe it’s more about the fear that the clarity of the message, the intent, the thing that an author is trying to get across, can be obscured, muddled or even completely lost, if there is no guide to traversing the Story World.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that fear. It’s completely understandable, and it is a real pitfall of the medium. We tell stories to make sense of the world, yes, but also to communicate something about the world and our experiences. Exploding those into atomic pieces poses the threat that we will lose any kind of opportunity to understand and empathise with others.

However, as with any medium, the Web has strengths, as well as weaknesses. What it offers is the chance not only to take multiple paths through the Story World, but to bind those multiple paths together. Rather than disconnected narratives which conceptually use and reuse familiar characters, settings and events, the Web offers a chance to link these together, thus connecting the stories we tell, enabling us to better share multiple perspectives on the same world. Showing us that there are more than two sides to every story, and that, backed up by some form of evidence, the plural point of view is a strength of humanity, if a complex one for us to fully realise.

The Story Knowledge is the state of information that the audience has at any one time.

The final level is Story Knowledge. If the Story World contains everything; and the Story Telling is our path through that world; then the Story Knowledge is the information, and understanding, that anyone experiencing the story has, at any one time.

This is, of course, where spoilers come into play. What one person knows about the Story World can be very different to what another person knows, depending on where they both are situated on the continuum of the narrative.

Thus, the Story Knowledge is often something subject to a process of negotiation — between the author and the reader, between the machine and the reader, and indeed between multiple readers.

It can be as simple as asking “Have you seen Star Wars yet?”, out of consideration to not ‘spoil’ the Story World for someone else. Online, the best example I’ve seen is Somethin’ Else’s use of a ‘spoiler filter’ on the Skins website. Simply asking a user which episode they’ve seen up to, influences what information they are exposed to on the website.

Spoilers are of course, multifaceted. Some people actively seek them out, preferring to know in advance what is within the story world. This can be because they prefer to concentrate on the story telling — the ‘operational aesthetic’ as Jason Mittell has discussed; but also because they want to assess whether a narrative is suitable for their tastes — hence the recent coining of the term ‘trigger warnings’.

But this is also where I think there is room for exploration, when we take into account the affordances of the Internet and the Web. APIs, and in particular the REST architectural style, can be boiled down to the manner of asking questions to a computer, about things within the story world.

In this way, we can exchange information with the story-world-as-Web, by revealing what knowledge we have as an audience, asking an API things like ‘what happens next?’, and essentially moderating our storytelling experience through a machine.

That machine, of course, will have been designed by a human, and would have rules encoded (aka the other buzzword, algorithms), to represent the requisite order of narrative revelation. That process, of course, could be considered one of telling stories to a machine. An intriguing prospect, which raises the question, for content creators and storytellers who wish to engage with the Web — has ‘the audience’ now expanded to include both humans, and machines, too? And what could we do with that opportunity?

Thanks to Sarah Challis for the visual design on the model/layer images.

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Product leader; Innovation in Digital Storytelling experiences. Reach, Springer Nature, BBC. Views are my own. Sporadically writing here.

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Paul Rissen

Product leader; Innovation in Digital Storytelling experiences. Reach, Springer Nature, BBC. Views are my own. Sporadically writing here.